By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with a Special Correspondent in Egypt
CAIRO, EGYPT (BosNewsLife)-- Christians in Egypt have faced a deadly New Year as Islamic militants killed a Christian man while angry Muslims injured at least five believers and forced a Christian couple to leave their town, BosNewsLife learned Friday, January 26. Despite the bloodshed, an embattled Christian community pledged to build the first church in its troubled history.
In one of the bloodiest attacks this year, Islamic militants murdered 27-year-old Bassem Herz Attalhah for refusing to abandon his faith in Jesus Christ. The Coptic Christian was shot and killed by three gunmen of the ‘State of Sinai’ group in Egypt which pledges alliance to the Islamic State terror network, his family and a well-informed Christian said.
He was killed while on his way home from work in El-Arish, capital of North Sinai governorate, Saturday evening, January 13, said his brother Osama who witnessed the attack. Osama, 38, recalled that he and neighbor Mohamed were "walking with Bassem" when men in their 20s suddenly stopped them.
"They stopped us and discovered a tattoo of a cross on Bassem's wrist. My brother made clear he was prepared to carry his cross. When asked whether he was a Christian he said 'Yes'" The men also asked Mohamed his name and made him show his wrist. When they saw he had no tattoo, he was allowed to leave, Osama said. Then they turned to Osama.
"I was spared because they did not discover the tattoo of the cross. The attackers thought I was a Muslim. I carried the tattoo of the cross on the top of my hand, but it was under my sleeve." Osama is also a common name among Muslims, and the men didn’t realize he was Bassem’s brother. Bassem also told them that he had children.
The gunmen apparently fired two shots near Osama's legs and asked him to leave. Then they shot his brother in the head. "I saw how he was killed. I saw him falling on the ground," Osama said.
The attack came less than a year after the two brothers and their parents fled El-Arish in February 2017 following the killing of seven Christians there that year. They eventually moved to the capital Cairo but could not find work there. The families returned to El-Arish last September where the brothers reopened a mobile phone repair service.
Following the January 13 shooting, Christians also suffered attacks elsewhere in the country including in El-Dawar village, some 150 kilometers (93 miles) northwest of Cairo, after "false rumors" that a Christian man attacked a Muslim woman, villagers said.
A Christian woman and four Christian men were reportedly injured in the January 17 attacks. "An arm of the woman was broken. One of the targeted men also suffered a broken arm, while three other men suffered head injuries as the attackers hit them with clubs," a well-informed Egyptian Christian reporter told BosNewsLife. He spoke on condition of anonymity amid security concerns.
At least three Christian homes and two Christian shops in the town were pelted with bricks and stones, resulting in smashed windows and doors, according to eyewitnesses.
Furniture and other personal items were also damaged in last week's violence, Christians told BosNewsLife. Additionally, Muslim villagers threw Molotov cocktails towards the rooftops of Coptic-owned homes, but security forces managed to disperse the crowds before they could do serious harm, the Christian reporter said.
Following the violence, a controversial "reconciliation meeting" was held where Christians were reportedly forced by authorities to banish 55-year-old Awad Zaky, a Christian blacksmith, from the village. Zaky was publicly accused by a Muslim man of sexually assaulting his wife in an attack that sparked the anti-Christian violence.
But villagers said the Muslim man "falsely accused" Zaky because he demanded money for blacksmith work done for him. Zaky was detained but eventually released Sunday, January 21. He and his wife were forced to flee to an undisclosed location outside El-Dawar and face a fine of some $3,000 in local currency, BosNewsLife learned.
"Zaky is now without work because his blacksmith workshop is at his house in the village," a Christian said. Christians still face threats, though local security forces managed to prevent new attacks over the weekend, Christians are also recovering in Kom El-Loufy village in Upper Egypt following reported attacks there.
Last month, Christian villagers were forced to drop charges against Muslims who torched homes there of four Christian brothers, according to sources familiar with the police-brokered meeting. In exchange, the Christian community was allowed to begin building its first Coptic church on the outskirts of the village, Christians told BosNewsLife.
"We need international support to make this happen. Our financial abilities are insufficient," said priest Filtawos Ibrahim. "We also need prayers", another Christian added.
Analysts have linked the struggles of Christians to influence of Islamists in Egypt and anger about the perceived support of Christians for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi and their opposition towards the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
The president met last year with a group of leading evangelical Christian activists from the United States at his office in Cairo, where they discussed the fight against Islamic State, the prospects for peace between Israel and the Arab world and the situation of Christians in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.
Copts, as most Egyptian Christians are called, comprise about 10 percent of the country's population of some 92 million, making them the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is the main Christian church in predominantly Muslim Egypt. Its members are called Coptic Orthodox, distinguishing them from Copts who converted to Catholicism and from the Eastern Orthodox, who are mostly Greek. (A special correspondent contributed to this story. His name was withheld amid security concerns).
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